As owner of the Ybor City music venue the Orpheum, Jerry Dufrain has seen everyone from rapper Ghostface Killah to indie-electronic group Little Dragon play his room. But one genre sticks out in the club's concert history: metal. The Orpheum has carved itself out as a heavy music haven by hosting national metal acts like Agalloch and Behemoth, and local pioneers like Obituary and Deicide. And on Aug. 23, it will be one of three stages for Southern Darkness Fest, which features more than 25 bands, including instrumental headliner Pelican. • Despite Tampa being a metal capital, Southern Darkness Fest is unique, said Dufrain, a promoter for the fest. There have been traveling tours and one-offs like Scion Rock Fest, which included the Orpheum as a participating venue, but not a locally grown metal festival, he said. A fan of metal and hardcore music who would see bands at CBGB as a teenager, he said, Dufrain talked with Tampa Bay Times staff writer Jimmy Geurts about Southern Darkness Fest, Tampa's metal history and his favorite metal shows at the Orpheum.
How did Southern Darkness Fest come about?
The Orpheum does a lot of the heavier music in the market. Pete Olen, who has been a promoter in Tampa for years and years, and myself, who's also been in the music business at the Orpheum for 14 years, were both doing a lot of shows. We were finding that we'd been doing a bunch of heavier music and getting some bigger and bigger bands into the Orpheum. It's kind of slowly but surely become the venue of choice for a lot of heavy bands that are coming through. We kind of started having these conversations back and forth in the office about "Hey, we should put something together, we should put a festival together."
So that was the sort of origins of Southern Darkness Fest. Let's do something, we live here in this town that's historically been known as the death metal capital of the world and that has an absolute ton of internationally acclaimed heavy bands that are from here or have moved here or have come and recorded here. So we kind of already had this built-in cachet and audience, and we were like, "We should just put something together."
Why do you think in a metal capital like Tampa, besides one-offs like Scion Rock Fest, this is the first or one of the first metal festivals in Tampa?
I don't think it's any secret that festivals in the United States are growing exponentially. You can't read a music blog anymore without seeing it. Festivals are something that had been happening in Europe for years — these big, giant outdoor crazy weekend festivals. And only within the past five to 10 years has that market really exploded in the United States. And since that's been happening, you have the godfathers of that scene, which is the Maryland Deathfest and ProgPower.
We saw that stuff was happening and I just think in Tampa, we get so many of those bands anyway that maybe — and this is just me guessing — maybe nobody thought to put on a festival because the fact is, a bunch of these heavy bands live here anyway. So they're going to play a show here anyway, so why put on a festival? But that's only a guess about why it didn't happen. I don't know, but I feel lucky that we were able to put it together because nobody else had.
What are your favorite metal bands from the Tampa Bay area?
I love the guys in Deicide, I love that band. I love the guys in Cannibal Corpse — I'm a big fan of Cannibal Corpse as well. Those two bands, along with Morbid Angel and Obituary, those are bands that wrote the template for what death metal is supposed to sound like. When you hear some of their albums, anyone else who's making death metal is writing variations on the theme those guys came up with. And they're from here. Now, young bands today? I'm really super stoked on the new record by Set and Setting, who are playing our festival. I can't wait for that to come out, it's coming out on Prosthetic Records … They have their own take on instrumental heavy music. I really like them, and I'm super stoked that they ended up playing here.
What are some of your favorite metal shows that the Orpheum has put on?
The first time we booked Deicide in the Orpheum, I was over the moon. Star-struck isn't the right word because I've been doing this for a while, but it never occurred to me that a band like Deicide would be playing in a venue I owned. Call me naïve or whatever, but I didn't necessarily think that was going to come together, so when that happened, I was super excited. And when Scion Rock Fest called us up and was like, "Hey, we're going to include you in this thing and Decapitated and Overkill are going to play in your room," I was like, "Decapitated and Overkill, oh my God, are you serious?" These were bands as a younger kid I was such a big fan of, and then they're going to be playing in my room.
I stood in the middle of the audience and kind of told my staff to leave me alone and not ask me any questions during their set when Agalloch came and played. They really don't tour very often and we've only had them in the room twice ever and both times I thought they were, at the risk of using a term too often, they were just so epic — they were so good … That was one of my favorite ever shows.
Is Southern Darkness Fest going to be annual, or is this a one-timer?
I hate to get ahead of ourselves. Pete and I, we're really focused on this one. But not for nothing, we've probably got half of next year already booked. There were bands this year that we reached out to that essentially said, "This is an awesome idea, we want to do this but logistically we're in Europe or a band member has a wedding. But there's no question in the world we want to do this next year, and barring any logistical problems, we're already booked."
So yes, it will go on next year. Yes, we have bigger plans for next year. We actually had to limit ourselves this year only insofar as between us … we could've just kept booking bands forever, we could've put it in five venues, we could've done it over a whole weekend. There were enough bands that were interested. But we kind of wanted to keep the first year small, make sure that we did it right and everybody thought it was awesome. And we could come back after we've taken a breath and say, "Okay, next year, do we want to do a whole weekend? Next year, do we need to do a venue bigger than the Orpheum?" Once we do take that breath, I think we'll be able to do a turnaround. But we have the dates booked already for next year.
Weekend conversation is edited for brevity and clarity. Contact Jimmy Geurts at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @jimmygeurts.